July 3, 2014

Lathrop on Gettysburg: an angry embrace

25 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, survivors of the bloody battle joined for a reunion at the scene where it all happened, on July 3, 1888. The guest speaker for the gathering was the Hawaii-born poet, editor, and novelist George Parsons Lathrop, perhaps best known as husband of Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The poem he presented that day was simply titled "Gettysburg: A Battle Ode." Despite how his poem begins — "Victors, living, with laureled brow, / And you that sleep beneath the sward!" — Lathrop particularly addressed the Confederate veterans who had lost that day in 1863. He emphasized the peaceful reunion of these former foes, who "fiercely warred" not so long ago, but now, "Brother and brother, now, we chant a common chord."

Lathrop's poem also gives specifics about the day, including individual soldiers and officers who he praises for their bravery. He even gives a play-by-play of which groups charged who and when. Before all that, however, he said the scene was "blameless" even as it is now "known to nations far away." In fact, he describes how the day was, otherwise, a normal, peaceful one before the "living lines of foemen" appeared, full of the tragic "Madness of desire to kill."

The farms that hosted the battle become a garden for those men who will die and be harvested by Death. The poem is purposely all-inclusive of all sides, even to the point that Lathrop gives a sort of inventory of those involved:

Men of New Hampshire, Pennsylvanians,
   Maine men, firm as the rock’s rough ledge!
Swift Mississippians, lithe Carolinians
   Bursting over the battle’s edge!
Bold Indiana men; gallant Virginians;
   Jersey and Georgia legions clashing;—
Pick of Connecticut; quick Vermonters;
   Louisianians, madly dashing;—
And, swooping still to fresh encounters,
   New York myriads, whirlwind-led!—
All your furious forces, meeting,
   Torn, entangled, and shifting place,
Blend like wings of eagles beating
   Airy abysses, in angry embrace.

The battle which brings these foes into an intermingled mix of weapons and bodies is juxtaposed with the re-union of the states, and the reunion of the veterans ("like a bride"). Together, these men join in mourning and in celebration, regardless of previous alliances.

    Two hostile bullets in mid-air
            Together shocked,
            And swift were locked
    Forever in a firm embrace.
    Then let us men have so much grace
        To take the bullets' place,
         And learn that we are held
            By laws that weld
            Our hearts together!
    As once we battled hand to hand,
        So hand in hand to-day we stand,
            Sworn to each other,
            Brother and brother,
    In storm and mist, or calm, translucent weather:
    And Gettysburg’s guns, with their death-giving roar,
    Echoed from ocean to ocean, shall pour
         Quickening life to the nation’s core;
            Filling our minds again
With the spirit of those who wrought in the
                        Field of the Flower of Men!

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